News and Views by Dionne Jackson Miller

pointed commentary on current affairs in Jamaica and the Caribbean



P.J. Patterson’s Legacy

Former Prime Minister of Jamaica PJ Patterson ...

Parliament has now devoted two sessions to eulogising and lionising former Prime Ministers Edward Seaga and P.J. Patterson.

The glowing one-dimensional tributes intentionally ignore the negative sides of both men’s political balance sheets. For honest assessments of their leadership, we will clearly have to look further than their desk-thumping friends in Gordon House.

In this post, however, I want to focus on one small thing that P.J. Patterson did, which is likely to be ignored in the academic treatises that will be produced about his tenure.

He created Emancipation Park  which has now been open for ten years. It sounds like such a small thing to single out, but it’s one which I think has had tremendous impact. And lest we forget, there was no overwhelming outpouring of support for him at the time.

One reasonable criticism is that it was part of the diversion of National Housing Trust funds away from housing for contributors. It could not have happened if contributors’ funds were sequestered away in a real trust, which is a discussion we really need to have, although it is a step the politicians are unlikely to want to take. That’s because if NHT money were locked away, for use for contributors’ housing only, it would deprive them of their Santa Claus goodie bag.

Would I turn back the clock and leave the NHT funds untouched, and the park the dusty bowl it was? No, I wouldn’t. But I certainly would favour locking away NHT funds going forward.

Having said that, we do now have a beautiful green space in the middle of the city.  Joggers and walkers frequent the park in the early morning or afternoon and evening, and friends gather to catch up, and chat. For those who think that only the New Kingston elite use the park, you need to go by and visit.

Walking in Emancipation Park
Photo by DJ Miller

The park hosts a range of free activities and concerts that draw in Jamaicans from all walks of life, especially on week-ends. (That’s the problem with projects like these, by the way – they are necessary and useful, so you can always rationalise funding them, until you drain the well dry.)

The entrance to Emancipation Park, New Kingston
Photo by DJ Miller

As I mentioned, The National Housing Trust maintains Emancipation Park which is why it has been so successful. At this stage of our (lack of) development), we probably can’t afford an Emancipation Park in every town centre, although we need one. I’m not forgetting Hope Gardens, another beautiful location, more beautiful  in its way than the manicured prettiness of Emancipation Park.  The point is, we need more such spaces. Is there a model we can look at to create more safe, green spaces with  jogging tracks, some benches, a bandstand, and some grass? Because we’re paying for not having them – paying in hospital bills and medication. Perhaps we’re paying the cost in anti-social behaviour as well.

Friends chat after exercising
Photo by DJ Miller

The research is well-known. Access to green spaces promotes mental, physical and social health. One report suggested that the “health gap” between rich and poor can be reduced by creating more green spaces.

The Tropical Medicine Research Institute at the University of the West Indies has reported that nearly half of Jamaicans have been reported as having low levels of physical activity, and are obese or overweight Many neighbourhoods are either unsafe or unpleasant to walk in. The diseases associated with these risk factors, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension are also well-known. Green spaces could be used to encourage more physical activity, but would, of course, have to be managed to ensure that they don”t become havens for drug dealers and living quarters for the homeless.

So while I will leave a detailed assessment of former Prime Minister Patterson’s legacy as a whole for another occasion, his decision to create Emancipation Park is one which I think, on the whole, was a good one.

PS  – incidentally, I also applaud and thank him for resisting the temptation to name it after himself or some other politician!

NB More photos below!!!

Catching a nap
Photo by DJ Miller
Those statues!!
Photo by DJ Miller
Photo by DJ Miller
Photo by DJ Miller
Photo by DJ Miller

That Health and Family Life Education Manual – Bad Move!

English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle),...
English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle), male homosexuality (upper right), male bisexuality (lower right), female homosexuality (lower left) and female bisexuality (upper left). Česky: Symboly pro heterosexualitu (uprostřed), mužskou homosexualitu (vpravo nahoře), mužskou bisexualitu (vpravo dole), ženskou homosexualitu (vlevo dole) a ženskou bisexualitu (vlevo nahoře). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somebody messed up. Big time. This is not about being liberal, tolerant or open-minded. The people who managed to get what has turned out to be a hugely controversial Health and Family Life Education manual into Jamaican schools must have known that sections of the manual would be offensive to many Jamaican parents.

The manual, funded by UNICEF, is over 400 pages long, for Grades 7-9, and covers four themes, eating and fitness, managing the environment, self and interpersonal relationships and the one that has come in for criticism, sexuality and sexual health. The vast majority of the programme is uncontroversial, but some sections, dealing with sexuality, have raised concerns.

TVJ broke the story about some of the contents of the manual last week, which resulted in an immediate public backlash.

Within 24 hours of the story first airing, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said that:

“I consider sections of the manual inappropriate for any age and certainly for the Grade 7 and 8 students for which it was designed. I have instructed that the material be withdrawn from all schools and re-written then redistributed…”

It doesn’t matter if you believe that the law making buggery a criminal offence should be repealed, or if you think Jamaican society is homophobic and more tolerance is needed (or not), or if you are a gay rights activist who wants to see same-sex marriage legalized at some point. That is really not what this is about.

It’s about trying to sneak a controversial curriculum into schools without the knowledge of most of the parents of the children in those schools. It’s about trying to force change in a way that is certain to bring a social backlash. It’s about being respectful enough of other people’s views to understand that whatever you think children ought to be taught, parents have a right to have a say in that decision. This is not just a desirable principle, it’s a legal requirement. Section 44 of our Education Act says:

In the exercise and performance of the functions assigned to him by this Act, the Minister shall have regard to the general principle that, so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, the wishes of parents are to be considered in the education of students.

I used the words “sneak a controversial curriculum into schools” quite deliberately. I don’t care who in the Education Ministry approved that manual, how much donor money was spent or that focus groups were involved. Anybody, and I mean any honest person, would have known that most Jamaican parents would have objected to sections of that manual. If you were serious about wanting buy-in, the controversial sections would have been published, widely disseminated and discussed in the media to truly gauge public and parental reaction. Any bets as to what the outcome would have been?

One of the most publicized aspects of the manual is the activity aimed at Grades 7 and 8 students with the stated objective of increasing ‘awareness of an individual’s personal risk of HIV infection.’ The questions include:

–       Have you ever had sexual intercourse?

–       Have you ever had sex without a condom?

–       Have you ever had casual sexual partners?

–       Have you ever had anal sex without a condom?

–       Do you know your HIV status?

–       Do you know the HIV status of all your partners?

Someone has just emailed me to point out that the activity is for the students to assess themselves, and that the answers are not meant to be shared with the teachers. So what happens when a teacher is inadvertently made privy to one of the answers? What if a child decides to share his or her experiences thinking the teacher can be trusted? Not all can. Also, are ordinary classroom teachers really equipped to handle the possible ramifications of raising some of these issues?

We hear a lot about children having sex at an early age. The 2008 Jamaica Reproductive Health Survey, conducted by the National Family Planning Board, indicates that 66% of young women and 75% of young men say they have had sex. These figures are actually a bit lower than those in the 2002 survey when 69% of young women and 82 % of young men reported having had sex. (Respondents were men aged 15-24, and women aged 15-49.)

In addition, the 2008 report stated that the mean age for first sexual encounter was 16.1 for young women, and 14.5  for young men, compared to 15.8 and 13.5, respectively, in 2002.

Twelve per cent of young women and 35% of young men reported having sex for the first time before they were 15.

Clearly this is cause for concern and must be addressed. A lot of young people are having sex. And inevitably, some of that sex is risky.

English: Adults and children estimated to be l...
English: Adults and children estimated to be living with HIV in 2007. Source: WHO & UNAIDS (here) Ελληνικά: Ενήλικες και παιδιά που εκτιμάται ότι ζουν με τον ιό HIV το 2007. Πηγή: Παγκόσμιος Οργανισμός Υγείας & UNAIDS (εδώ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jamaica is one of seven out of ten Caribbean countries named by UNAIDS Caribbean on its website as having a prevalence rate for HIV of over 1%. The figure for Jamaica is 1.7%. UNAIDS says:

“When the HIV rate in the general population is higher than one percent this is defined as a general epidemic. That means that while communities with higher risk such as men who have sex with men and sex workers may contribute disproportionately to the spread of HIV, heterosexual transmission is also sufficient to sustain an epidemic independent of those groups.”

So most of us understand that young people must be given information about the dangers of early sexual activity and how to protect themselves when they start having sex. Advocates of  the manual apparently think we don’t. That’s not it. But how far should schools go?

Look at the flip side. Eight out of ten of the girls and two out of every three boys  would NOT have had sex in first and second form, which is the  age group targeted by these activities in the family life manual. Does that really suggest that we need to have discussions about multiple sexual partners and anal sex with the class as a whole?

Is there a way to initiate introductory discussions about sex and risky sexual behavior without going into the kind of detail many parents have said they find offensive? Could we start the general discussions in class, but with a pointer to internet sites where sexually active students who have concerns can discreetly go to access the more detailed information they might need? Or find a way to involve parents in the process, by asking them to discuss sensitive information with their children?  I know, I know, many parents are themselves ignorant, or uncomfortable discussing reproductive health issues. So how do we provide the information our young people clearly need without introducing topics that have been deemed unnecessary and inappropriate for others of the same age? After all, the statistics clearly show that not all teenagers are having sex.  It’s a discussion we need to continue, until we find a generally acceptable  solution.

Another offensive aspect of the manual for many people though, was its emphasis on sexual orientation which the manual rightly identifies as a “controversial topic.” I guess this is where I  say “duh!”

English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle),...
English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle), male homosexuality (upper right), male bisexuality (lower right), female homosexuality (lower left) and female bisexuality (upper left). Česky: Symboly pro heterosexualitu (uprostřed), mužskou homosexualitu (vpravo nahoře), mužskou bisexualitu (vpravo dole), ženskou homosexualitu (vlevo dole) a ženskou bisexualitu (vlevo nahoře). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Again, one can only wonder at the person who really thought it would be appropriate to include in an activities section for Grade Six students, a suggestion that “students volunteer for a panel discussion on the rights of homosexuals. The discussion focuses on the need to show tolerance and respect to all persons.”

The guided imagery activity for Grade 8, asking students to imagine a world where it was normal to be gay but where you, the students, were straight, was also problematic for a number of reasons.

For one thing, many people saw it as “conditioning” children to accept the gay lifestyle. In my view, the aim of the activity was clear, to try to have students walk in the shoes of a gay student and understand his/her feelings and problems a little more. But adapted as it was from a Toolkit by a group called Advocates for Youth to “create safe space for GLBTQ Youth,” this was an inherently wrong choice. NB – GLBTQ means Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender and Questioning (I had to look up the Q!)

Advocates for Youth is a US-based organization which seems to carry out considerable work in the field of  reproductive health education and advocacy for young people and describes itself, among other things, as an “innovator of new programs to redress homophobia and transphobia in communities of color.”  That should have been a little red flag for people who wanted to borrow material for our purposes, shouldn’t it?

Another recent survey gives us a picture of current Jamaican attitudes to different sexual lifestyles.

The 2012 National Survey of Attitudes and Perceptions of Jamaicans Towards Same-Sex Relationships  was recently released by the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), and was  funded by AIDS-Free World.

The survey states that about 50% of respondents become aware of homosexuality by 14 years old, 88% felt male homosexuality was immoral, 83.7% felt female homosexuality was immoral, and 83.5% felt bisexuality was immoral.

When questioned, 76.7 percent of respondents did not want to see the buggery law amended, and 65% did not want the constitution amended to include specific reference to LGBT rights. However, 21.3% said they would support an amendment that would allow consensual sex between adults in private.

One reader commented that there was “extensive island-wide” consultation with stakeholders. If that is so, then the persons designing the field testing needs to revamp his or her methodology entirely, because it clearly was useless in gauging true public opinion on the most controversial issues.

Should tolerance be taught? I would say yes, absolutely, but there must be serious questions asked about the methodology which the Education Ministry chose to use here. The attempt by the people behind this manual to tackle this issue in the schools in the way we saw here was not just inadvisable, it was disrespectful as well.

People who are so quick to speak about the need to respect others, need to understand that respect works both ways. Parents’ wishes, much as you may disagree with them, must be respected as well. And if you have trouble accepting that, refer again to section 44 of the Education Act.

What My Jamaican Nanny Left Me – The Other Side of the Story

Nurse and Child - Mary Cassatt
Photo - Wikimedia Commons

The Huffington Post published a poignant story about a Jewish man reminiscing about the legacy of love left to him by his Jamaican nanny, a story that’s heartwarming and touching.  Or is it?

The story is indeed well-written and moving. But suppose we read between the lines? The question the story raises for me is whether this is a classic case of a Jamaican woman who was forced through economic circumstances to leave her children back home to raise other people’s children far away. It’s possible that her children were already grown, but the story says she had SEVEN children back in Jamaica and another child in the United States, for whom she prayed every night.

I’m not judging her, or other Jamaicans who feel the need to migrate to support their families. Many feel they have no choice. But the fact is that this has been recognized as a major contributor to our societal problems like juvenile delinquency, and yes, crime.

Coco bread with a Jamaican beef patty
Coco bread with a Jamaican beef patty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when Ross Urken speaks lovingly of the evenings his Jamaican nanny spent reading to him and his sister, ask who is reading to the thousands of kids left motherless back in Jamaica. When he speaks about how she exposed him to Jamaican patties and jerk chicken, ask about the exposure of the children left behind.

Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the West Indies Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown reported on the phenomenon she termed the “barrel children” syndrome in the 1990s.

UNICEF (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A 2007 UNICEF report cited her seminal work as follows:

“As early as 1993, Dr. Claudette Crawford Brown, from the University of the West Indies (UWI) came to the conclusion that the absence of mothers was a key determinant to the involvement of children with violence.

In a survey she found that 80% of children in conflict with the law had their mothers absent, while this was the case for only 30% of other children, and migration was the second most important reason explaining the absence of mothers.”

Those left behind are particularly vulnerable to abuse, which should be of interest, given the recent focus on the sexual abuse of children.

A 2009 UNICEF study on the impact of migration in the Caribbean stated that:

“The impact of parents’ migration on children can be devastating as it threatens the long-term well-being and development of Caribbean adolescents into adulthood…

“Many children left behind suffer from depressions, low self-esteem which can lead to behavioural problems, and (are) at increased risk of poor academic performance as well as interruption of schooling.”

The potential for abuse is especially great when the mother migrates. The study states that:

“According to the evaluation of the Health and Family Life Education programme, 18% of the respondent children (average age of 14.7 yr) experienced forced sex. The vulnerability to abuse significantly increases when a child loses the protection of a parent(s)…

When the mother migrates, abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or neglect is more likely to occur.”

Interesting, although the reason given for migration is to help the family, often the migration of the father impacted the family left behind by reducing the available financial resources with “little remittances coming back …”

Boeing 737
Photo - Wikimedia Commons

The children left behind have been found to suffer a range of psycho-social issues.

“The most common psycho-social problems are feelings of abandonment, sadness, despondence, despair, anger, lack of trust, low self-esteem, and inability to concentrate at school. The abandonment of a parent(s) sometimes has permanent effects on the child’s life, and many spend their entire lives struggling with feelings of rejection and loss.  The many broken promises of reunion with their parents further tend to result in emotional instability.”

The paper concludes that:

“These implications of parents’ migration on children threaten the long-term well-being and development of Caribbean adolescents into  productive adults.”

Many of those issues remain.

Dr. Audrey Pottinger was quoted in the Jamaica Observer in 2008 as saying that she had conducted a small study in which children whose parents had migrated to North America or the United Kingdom, reported feelings of loneliness, anger, anxiety, fear of rejection, abandonment and sadness.

Speaking at a Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) Symposium, she said:

“I compared children who had parents divorced, died or migrated. We found that migratory loss seems to affect more areas of the child’s life compared to divorce and death.”

She found that migration caused mental consequences even though parents stayed in contact with their children and sent money and gifts.

Seventy-seven per cent of the children said they were concerned about who would take care of them once their parents left and 71 per cent had increased somatic illnesses (triggered by depression) after the migration. Forty-five per cent said they did not understand why their parents had migrated, even after family discussions,  and 20 per cent said they were never informed prior to the migration – they just came home one day and were given the news that their parent left.

She noted that there were statistically significant differences in the occurrences of depression in children whose parents migrated compared to those whose parents had not.

“Depression was found significant in both the Trinidad and the Jamaican group,” she said. “In addition, in Jamaica the children were more at risk for suicidal ligation and poor school performance.”

So forgive me if I’m not clicking my heels with joy at the legacy this Jamaican nanny left her American charge. It leaves me wondering about the impact on her Jamaican children. And even if this nanny’s children were all grown and well-functioning adults when she left, it reminds me of the thousands of other children suffering from absent parents. No, this story doesn’t warm my heart. It saddens me.


Links to the UNICEF reports are provided, but for completeness, the citations are:

1. The Impact of International Migration: Children Left Behind in Selected Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Anna Lucia D’Emilio et al. Division of Policy and Planning, UNICEF. 2007.

2. The Impact of Migration on Children in the Caribbean. Caroline Bakker, Martina Elings-Pels and Michele Reis. UNICEF Office for Barbados and Easte

In Praise of “Minor” Sports



In Jamaica, if you’re not a footballer, a runner or a cricketer, dog nyam yuh supper. We’ve lauded our CARIFTA track and field team which won 77 medals including 34 gold. That is great, and we are all grateful to the hard working athletes and their coaches who keep the flag flying high (all three colours of it!)

 (CARIFTA swimmers – Gillian Haughton photo)

Our CARIFTA swimmers, who came home from the Bahamas with 32 medals – ten gold, sixteen silver and six bronze, have received much less attention. I’m told the team was met at an airport by a TVJ cameraman. Full stop. The children frequently complain of the limited attention they get from the public.

They did, however, get more attention than the chess team,  which gave us two CARIFTA champions , and an overall third place, or the water polo team, which is in re-building stage, and where our under-15 boys placed second of four teams to win a silver, our under-19 girls came away with the silver against Trinidad and Tobago, and our under-19 boys, were bested by Trinidad and Tobago and Curacao to take bronze.  (CARIFTA water polo teams – Malden Miller photo)

Fact is, in Jamaica, track and field, (men’s) football, (men’s) cricket and to a lesser extent, netball, are the big sports (the reaction to women’s sports is another story -our netballers were excelling for years with little attention, the Reggae Boyz made ONE World Cup, where they failed to advance, and became superstars). But the reality is that there are many other sports which Jamaicans are playing, and playing well, albeit not at the stratospheric level of track and field.

We have youngsters competing  in synchronized swimming, volleyball, tennis, badminton, gymnastics, and the list goes on.

The athletes in many of these sports have to be really determined to compete, especially at the regional and international levels. Family members usually have to underwrite the entire cost of competition including travelling and uniforms. It gets really expensive, really quickly, and many give up.

So why bother? Why not stick with the big four? Actually, there are many reasons why we need to broaden our horizons, and think beyond the popular sports.

Young people should be given the opportunity to explore all their talents, and their potential. A so-so runner may be a dynamite swimmer. A mediocre footballer may be a promising tennis player.

There is potential for scholarships in many of these areas, not just track and field.

We need to see the potential for development in sports generally and expanding the sports we support will allow more young people to excel.

Then, there are the undeniable physical and health benefits. We need to encourage as many young people as possible (and older people, in fact!) to become physically active, whether they are going to become sports stars or not.  Researchers have indicated that 3-6% of pre-school children in the Caribbean are obese, with the figure in Jamaica being 6%.

The scientists reported that overweight and obesity is prevalent in the 10-19 age group with females showing a higher rate than males (18.9% compared to 16%).

Given that obesity and overweight are known risk factors for chronic disease, and inactivity nearly doubles the risk of cardiac disease, anything that will encourage physical activity must be welcome. Exposure to a wide range of sporting activities will allow more children a chance to find an activity with which they are comfortable and which they enjoy.

Other benefits of sports have been well documented, improving social skills, fostering team spirit, teaching kids how to win and lose. Again, the more sports we are able to offer, the more children will be able to benefit.

Veronica Campbell-Brown, Berlin 2009
Veronica Campbell-Brown, Berlin 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not all children can be Usain Bolt or Veronica Campbell-Brown. But that shouldn’t be our only measure of success.

Disclosure: I am not a sportswoman, and never was. Despite my complete lack of coordination, I comfort myself with the thought that I just wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of sports! 

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